Two days 'til bowling. Since you might not be on your blogs tomorrow - I personally know I'll be flyin' out to Evanston for unexplained reasons - I figured I'd get this preview up now. (Also, tomorrow is Purdue basketball day.)
I know the bowl system is silly, and that this game is meaningless, and that nobody is going - all the better for the gamethread! - and that not even Texas Tech fans are that excited, and that the game will be played in a dramatically empty Cotton Bowl. But! It's a bowl game. And Northwestern, quite frankly, has a chance to win.
Jump it up, people.
When we got the ball: Northwestern's offense is sort of a mess right now. Depth chart gives us Evan Watkins at quarterback with Kain Colter getting a lot of snaps, and Adonis Smith OR Stephen Simmons OR Mike Trumpy (who is injured and still of unknown status for Saturday.) If you went into a happiness-induced coma after the Iowa win, you'd be really confused. And that was three games ago. Not saying that three years from now, Watkins-Smith won't be a potent grouping - just saying they're both freshmen. Watkins hasn't looked ready and didn't seem to have the rapport one would need with his wideouts against Illinois and Wisconsin. Smith, to be honest, has looked alright, but him, Simmons, and an injured Trumpy can't carry this team.
Watkins has had over a month as this team's starting quarterback. The weeks of bowl practice were probably invaluable. And he'll be going up against the team that gave up the most passing yards in the nation, a team that genuinely struggles to stop deep passes. Watkins has a great arm - although the accuracy/decision making didn't seem to be there. I predict he looks significantly better against the hole-infested Texas Tech secondary than he did against a Wisconsin team that enjoys murdering everybody. If the run game can give NU over 100 yards, NU won't struggle to put up points.
Semi-under-the-radar player to watch: I've said it once, I've said it twice, I've said it pretty much every week this season. Stephen Simmons. He had 55 yards on 12 carries against Wisconsin - the most carries he'd received since Eastern Michigan in the second game of the 2009 season. NU will obviously look to exploit Texas Tech through the air, but has consistently kept the ball on the ground over 50 percent of the time all season long - with Trumpy possibly out, Simmons will have a bigger role in his last game than he has had since filling in for Tyrell Sutton down the stretch in 2008 - and wants to make an impact. From Teddy Greenstein at the Trib, an inexplicable quote:
"I'm about to 'clown,' so get ready," he said with a smile. "I'll act the fool. I'll do everything you can think of. I'm kind of low-key, so there's going to be a different side of me. I'm going to have fun and do some things I've seen on TV."
Stephen Simmons: acting the fool since January 1, 2010.
When they got the ball: Uh-oh.
You give up 70 points in a game. Yes, it was against Wisconsin, one of the nation's best teams, and a bunch of unfortunate turnovers gave the Badgers fantastic time of possession and great field position. But: 70 points. And they didn't even try to score for the entire fourth quarter.
Then, the next game, you play a team that lives to run and gun and move the ball downfield through the air as quickly as possible. This could get ugly.
Luckily, NU's greatest weakness - a rush defense that gives up about 8 yards per option read - likely own't be exploited as badly against Texas Tech. Baron Batch is a good back who has played for a long time, but he's not Mikel Leshoure, or those three scary Wisconsin guys. That said, NU's defense hasn't been great at stopping the pass, which is a problem, because Taylor Potts will throw a lot and has two extremely talented targets and that leads to a lot of touchdowns. That said, while NU virtually never had any success stopping the rush - basically the only good game against a good opposing running back was against Michigan State - they did occasionally neutralize opponents' passing games. Therefore, stylistically, it's a matchup that gives NU more of a chance than Illinois and Wisconsin did. That said, it's a very small chance. Potts will likely tear holes in the Northwestern defense all game long. Give Lyle Leong two receiving touchdowns now so I don't have to watch them Saturday.
Semi-under-the-radar player to watch: Justan Vaughn. I feel like I pick him a lot for these too, like Simmons, but, whatever. It's his last game, it's in his home state, and it's his job to keep one of Texas Tech's two star wideouts - Lyle Leong or Detron Lewis - under control. He will fail. They will play very well. Considering Mabin leads the Big Ten in passes defended, Vaughn might get a high percentage of balls thrown his way, and a lot of them will likely be complete. But there will be a big difference between those guys playing very well or those guys playing very very very well. Potts could throw for 320 yards and three touchdowns, and burn Vaughn and Jordan Mabin on several occasions. But I will take that. Because Potts has the potential to throw for 475 yards and six touchdowns. And that's a big difference. Vaughn will be outmatched, in part because he's going up against two talented receivers, and in part because Texas Tech lives and dies through the air and NU will be in no way prepared to stop it. I don't blame him. It's not his fault. Passable play by him could be the difference between a win and a loss.
aaaaaaand my pick...
Northwestern, 35, Texas Tech, 45.
There's going to be an awful lot of offense in this game. And quite frankly, Texas Tech has the better offense. These are two incredibly similar teams: Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index (which takes into account all of college football's 20,000 relevant possessions over the course of the season and the likely probability that each will end in a score) says Northwestern is the 66th best team in the country... and that Texas Tech is the 65th, with only .03 FEI points, which, quite frankly, I don't understand, separating them. Northwestern won't be able to stop Texas Tech's passing attack for any significant amount of time, and NU's offense isn't experienced enough to keep up with a Red Raider attack mainly comprised of seniors that's been doing the same thing - passing for lots of touchdowns - for their entire college careers. They're a tough team to prep for and I hope NU is up for the challenge. But I don't see a win in the cards.
That being said, dammit, let's end this streak. Evan Watkins, I have eternal faith in your ability to emerge as the savior of Northwestern football by doing what 60 years of quarterbacks have not been able to do. Boys, let's do this.
Go Cats, yo.